Sleep is critical to our physical health and effective functioning of the immune system. It’s also a key promoter of emotional wellbeing and mental health, helping to tackle stress, depression, and anxiety.

Whether you’ve had sleeping problems before COVID-19 or if they’ve only come on recently, there are things you can do to improve your sleep during this global pandemic.

The challenges to sleep during a pandemic?
Although millions of people suffered from insomnia before the coronavirus, unfortunately, the pandemic creates a host of new challenges even for people who previously had no sleeping problems.

The general disruption of daily life, social distancing, school closures, quarantines and working-from-home all bring about profound changes to our normal routines.

It can be difficult to adjust to a new daily schedule or lack of a schedule.

Keeping track of the time, and even the day, can be hard without typical time ‘anchors’ like dropping kids at school, arriving at the office, attending recurring social events, or going to the gym.

Many families are under serious stress as a result of the coronavirus. Cancelled trips, isolation from friends, and an abundance of time cooped up at home can place a strain on anyone. Keeping up with work-from-home obligations or managing a house full of children who are accustomed to being at school can pose real problems, generating stress and discord that have been shown to be barriers to sleep.

Whether it’s checking the news on your phone, joining a Zoom with family, binge-watching Netflix, or putting in extra hours staring at a computer while working-from-home, social distancing can mean a huge increase in screen time.

So what does sleep do for us and how much do we need?

The right kind of sleep is vital for our wellbeing – a healthy adult needs about seven to eight hours sleep a night, and a little less as they get older.

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of sleep. Deep sleep (also called slow-wave or non-REM sleep) is the stage where most of the brain is offline and resting while the body’s cells are repaired. This makes up about 80% of a healthy sleep cycle and getting the right amount helps us to stay physically healthy.

Less than four hours deep sleep a night can have an impact on our ability to heal and recuperate.

REM sleep – REM stands for rapid eye movement – is the phase where most dreaming takes place. There are a number of theories about the role of REM sleep, but what we do know is that following periods of REM sleep, mood improves, as does memory, and that during REM sleep neurotoxins are cleaned away to keep the brain healthy.

If you are not working at the moment or your weekly hours have been decreased due to COVID-19, you may be tempted to oversleep each morning. Sleeping more than seven to eight hours per night can make waking up on time much more difficult, even if you use an alarm. Oversleepers may also feel groggy, irritable and unfocused throughout the day.

What can you do to get better sleep?

– Stay Active. It’s easy to overlook exercise with everything happening in the world, but regular daily activity has numerous important benefits, including for sleep. If you can go for a walk while maintaining a safe distance from other people, that’s a great option. If not, there is a wealth of resources online for all types and levels of exercise.

Wake-up time. Set your alarm, bypass the snooze button, and have a fixed time to get every day started.

Wind-down time. This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It can involve things like light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pyjamas and brushing your teeth. Given the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s wise to give yourself extra wind-down time each night.

Bedtime. Pick a consistent time to actually turn out the lights and try to fall asleep.

– Reserve your bed for sleep. Sleep experts emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed.

– Caffeine. Cut down on caffeine in the second half of the day.

– Screen time. Avoid watching TV or internet surfing or using your smartphone in the two hours before we go to bed.

– Relaxation. Learn and practice relaxation exercises to help you to go off to sleep more easily

– See the Light. Exposure to light plays a crucial role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.

– Practice Kindness and Foster Connection. It might not seem critical to your sleep, but kindness and connection can reduce stress and its harmful effects on mood and sleep.

Utilise Relaxation Techniques. Finding ways to relax can be a potent tool in improving your sleep. Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, mindfulness meditation, calming music, and quiet reading are just a few examples of relaxation techniques that you can build into your routines. If you’re not sure where to get started, check out smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm that have programs designed for people new to meditation.

Contact Your Doctor if Necessary
If you have severe or worsening sleep or other health problems, it is advisable to be in touch with your doctor. Many doctors are increasing availability via email or telemedicine to allow patients to discuss concerns without having to physically visit their office.